“It’s estimated that every two weeks, a language dies. I don’t know about you, but this statistic moves me far more than any statistic on how many animals die or people die in a given time, in a given place. Because when we say a language dies, we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life.”

The person speaking is George, the linguist protagonist of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, though he’ll be the first to clarify that a linguist doesn’t necessarily speak a whole bunch of languages fluently, but is instead someone who studies the nature, structure, and variation of language itself. George’s particular field of interest and expertise is the study of dying languages such as “Elloway,” whose two remaining speakers are facing their twilight years, making it essential that George probe their knowledge asap. Without a recorded and written record of their language, Elloway will be lost forever.

If only George were as devoted to preventing the equally likely demise of his shaky marriage.

The Language Archive, now getting its Los Angeles Premiere at East West Players under the inspired direction of Jessica Kubzansky, takes a look at George, his unhappy wife, his lovestruck assistant, and those two Elloway speakers. In its World Premiere a year and a half ago at South Coast Rep, I griped about “Cho’s brand of magical realism” and language I found “either too didactic or too poetic,” all the while raving about its “all-around splendid cast, stunning design, some wonderful comedic scenes, and a number of quite touching moments.” Every one of those plusses hold true at EWP, where Artistic Director Tim Dang has assembled a terrific quintet of actors and some of L.A.’s finest designers. My earlier grumblings have, however, vanished as if by magic. In fact, I loved just about everything about The Language Archive the second time around.

It’s clear from the get-go that The Language Archive is going to be a highly theatrical piece of theater. George (Ryun Yu) starts right off by breaking the fourth wall and revealing to the audience his wife Mary’s recent sadness attacks. “She cries at everything,” he explains. “Long distance phone commercials, nature specials when animals of prey get killed. Sometimes at nothing at all.” Onstage throughout all this is Mary herself (Kimiko Gelman), attempting in vain to interrupt George’s musings. Finally, she grabs his attention. “George, I can hear you,” she interjects at last.

Soon after, Alta (Jeanne Sakata) and Resten (Nelson Mashita), the Elloway couple George is studying, make their first appearance, though the pair are hardly what he has been expecting. They arrive at George’s language laboratory quite fed up with each other, Resten having made Alta take the middle seat on the plane, appropriating the window seat for himself. Since it turns out that the Elloway language is unsuitable for expressing anger, the couple have no choice but to argue in English, with no return to Elloway in sight. “You did so take up the entire arm rest,” berates Resten, “which made it not so comfortable, let me telling you.” Needless to say, this English As A Second Language exchange proves quite a disappointment for language archivist George and his faithful assistant Emma (Jennifer Chang), whose tape recorder keeps on spinning without a word of Elloway being recorded.

As The Language Archive unfolds, Mary determines to find herself no matter what that takes, Alta and Resten face illness and the imminence of death, and Emma struggles to find the words to confess to George her feelings for him—all of this achieved in the most enchanting of ways.

The Language Archive marks the reunion of Kubzansky, Yu, and Sakata, who teamed together four years ago for Sakata’s biographical Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, which featured a bravura solo performance by Yu under Kubzansky’s magic wand.

Yu, who also starred in EWP’s production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, is a couldn’t-be-better choice for George, giving the linguist an awkward, geeky charm even as his inability to find the right words to make Mary stay and his absolute cluelessness to Emma’s affections make us want to tear either his or our own hair out. We ache for Yu’s George and at the same time want to slap him into articulating the words of his heart.

East West Players favorite Gelman reveals the complexities of a woman trapped in a marriage to a man who has lost the ability to communicate, and makes about as dazzling a transformation from frumpy to sensational as you’re likely to see any time soon. Chang is quirky and endearing as the unrequitedly lovestruck Emma, as incapable of finding the right words as is the object of her impossible affection.

Sakata and Mashita have the great good fortune to get to play not only the bickering spouces of untraceable geographic origin, but several others as well. The veteran stage and screen duo earn laughs galore when bickering in English, then prove every bit as touching as they’ve been hilarious when Alta finds herself caregiver to her beloved Resten. Sakata also scores as Emma’s stern Germanic Esperanto tutor and Mashita as the miraculously resurrected creator of that artificial language.

Scenic designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s set is a miracle of imagination and ingenuity. A wall of variously sized drawers, exactly what a language archivist might use to keep his reams of records, becomes as if by magic everything from an office to a bakery to a language classroom to a hospital room as drawers turn into doors and windows and assorted passageways accompanied by Bruno Louchouarn’s bewitching sound design. Jeremy Pivnick’s gorgeous lighting design enhances the lyrical magic of Couture’s set and Cho’s text. E.B. Brooks has designed a potpourri of terrific costumes, from George’s schlumpy shirts and slacks to Alta and Resten’s Elloway native garb. Property master Michael O’Hara has not only contributed a fast array of props but found a way to fill the David Henry Hwang Theater with the aroma of fresh baked bread at just the right moment. Katherine E. Haan is stage manager.

When I first saw The Language Archive, I wrote, “Easily accessible it is not.” Now I wonder what I was thinking. For whatever reason, the second time around had me falling under Julia Cho’s spell from the get-go, kept me entranced throughout, and left me quite moved. Hopefully it won’t take two productions for you to be too.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 9, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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